Why Amazon is Not As Good at Book Selling As You Think

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...
We all know that Amazon is the biggest online bookseller in the world, it sells more e-books than anyone else. In spite of the rise of other platforms, Barnes and Noble, Apple and most recently Kobo, it still outsells them and controls some 60% of the market. In short, it's doing a superb job at selling books... but is it really? Does it know how to assist in book discovery?

The answer is yes and no. 

On the yes side
  • the site is easy to navigate, you can go straight to their "best selling" and "most popular" lists (not much difference between the two, the latter somewhat more solid than the former) and their "genre" lists if you're a fan of a particular genre.
  • You can tell at a glance how many book reviews, good and bad, the title got and its sales ranking. 
  • Book details are well presented, usually with a clear book description (authors make an effort here, well aware that this is what sells their books!)
  • Customer reviews are shown in an attractive way, classified by "most helpful" and "most recent" (so you can see the book is not dead in the dust). Points that reviews have in common are highlighted so you don't need to waste time to read all of them to get a quick idea. 
  • When you are interested in a title, you can see what other customers bought, presumably with tastes similar to yours: it's listed under "what other items do customers buy after viewing this item?" That should give you ideas and an incentive to buy more books in the same genre.
  • Amazon gives its authors the possibility to set up a neat author page and add links to their own blog or website, pictures and even their own videos. Nice, if you want to know all about an author, it's all there: their life, their books, their Social Media presence. 
  • There's also a section of "book extras from the Shelfari community", an online book club that happens to be an Amazon company. This is a neat feature showing snapshots of book characters and things like a "ridiculously simplified" synopsis. Though when you click on the latter, you are likely to be disappointed: it's the usual one-line pitch, nothing ridiculous about it or funny. Presumably this feature is of special appeal to Shelfari members.
Image representing Shelfari as depicted in Cru...
On the no side
  • No links to Goodreads: The Shelfari link appears to preclude it, yet Goodreads is a much larger and more successful book reading community, probably the largest in the world with some 13 million members. Amazon is surely missing out here on a collaboration that could be very useful.
  • the "genre" listings are misleading and often mistaken, mainly because the categorizing is left in the hands of authors who could easily mislabel their books. I know, because I've mislabeled mine by error and Amazon hasn't corrected it yet: my novel A Hook in the Sky shows up in both fiction and non-fiction categories! That's patently impossible, it should be either the one or the other. Why does it turn up as non-fiction? Because I mistakenly tried to classify it as a novel about a retiree (who's far from being an elderly dodo, no, he's full of energy and goes on a wild romp as an artist). But the only word I could find that remotely rendered the idea of a retiree's (albeit adventurous) life was "aging". Whoever bought my book thinking he was going to get a deep disquisition about old age must have been truly disappointed!
  • Book promotion based entirely on sales ranks is equally misleading. Let me explain taking my own example. Because of the mistake I made in classifying my book  (and I shall correct it, promise!), A Hook in the Sky has shown many times in the top 100 Kindle best sellers for..."aging"!? Really, I kid you not. While my overall ranking is nowhere near the famous top 100, it constantly hits it in the "aging" category. Obviously a quirk of the famous Amazon algorithm linking mistakenly my overall sales to a particular category with which it has nothing to do. I can't believe that people interested in old age issues - say they run a home for the elderly - would buy my book: it would teach them strictly nothing about the elderly and has zilch to do with the aged.
  • Sales rankings act as a stranglehold on book discovery. Since that is the main tool used to assist customers in book discovery, they are automatically directed to the top 100 selling titles either overall or in the preferred genre. That means other, equally valid books are never presented to the customers navigating the site. Result? It's a vicious circle. People keep buying the same books because that's all they see and that helps maintain the books in the top 100 - which is very different from the experience in a brick-and-mortar bookstore where you can work your way through real book shelves and come across an unexpected gem. Amazon doesn't do anything like that, it relies solely on sales rankings and doesn't worry about the books that aren't listed in the hallowed top 100 (or close to it). The system works, sells books, so why worry? Yet, it results in a concentration of genres and titles, leaving everything else out, sitting on Interest dust-gathering shelves. Not that Amazon minds: a book sitting on a virtual shelf costs nothing. 
That explains why Amazon has become a major seller in genres like romance and thrillers, i.e. basically light, commercial entertainment, the kind that some people define as "throw-away" stuff you pick up at airports and supermarkets. Small wonder that e-books are displacing paperbacks which used to be bought in such places!
You don't believe me? Consider another feature of the Amazon site. A lot is said about Amazon's ability to keep track of book purchases and know therefore what to sell to whom. Indeed, publishers are terrified of this when they think of it: Amazon, unlike them, has a direct link to its customers. People pay on line with credit cards, the books are shipped on line, every Amazon customer has his own online library of purchased titles Amazon can see whenever it wants to. That is any legacy publisher's dream, to have at his fingertips the list of books readers have purchased...

Yet, is this happening?  I have my doubts. Amazon may well have that ability but it doesn't look like it's using it. Or perhaps not yet using it. I've received from Amazon in my email suggestions to buy books that I had already bought from them! Not only bought but also read and even in some cases reviewed, notably Beate Boeke's Rent a Thief and Sheila Redling's Flowertown. Why would they make such an easy-to-avoid mistake?

I was intrigued, so I looked into this further. I discovered that when I purchase a book using my Kindle, a row of suggested book titles (with covers) shows up on the top screen - if you click through, you'll find that they have 22 book suggestions for you. Clever! Is that a real help to book discovery, does Amazon know, based on my past purchases what I really like to read? Mind you, it wouldn't be easy for any machine given my wide-ranging reading habits, from thrillers to literary fiction and at least one non-fiction book for every novel...But since I've had a Kindle now for 3 years and bought plenty of books, surely a pattern would be discernible.

Well, the answer is no. Amazon offers a series of 22 titles that have NOTHING to do with what I like to read (they were mostly thrillers and romance, stuff I don't read normally). I was really surprised. I wondered whether they were simply suggesting books that were generally selling well on their site without regard for my tastes. So I checked on my mother's Kindle (she's 99 and reads one novel per week - on average -  and has been doing this for nearly two years now). Now my mother reads very differently from me: mostly thrillers and police procedurals, occasionally historical fiction. Would you believe that the 22 suggestions she received were identical to mine?

Conclusion: Amazon doesn't pay attention to individual consumer tastes even though it presumably has the technical ability to do it. If nothing else, it's nice to know Big Brother (i.e. Amazon) is not watching you! But is it clever book promotion?

Your neighborhood bookseller is able to do much better. I remember the one I once knew in Paris who left nice little hand-written notes on books he'd read to guide his clients in their choices. Also, if your bookseller knows you and sees what you buy and you talk "books" together, he can really help you choose your next read. This is something Amazon doesn't do.

What a pity. Because with its technical capability, Amazon could do a lot more for book discovery...

I believe something is afoot. Amazon has recently "cleaned up" its system of customer reviews, chucking out sock puppet reviews. It has taken off both the "like" button and tags that could be easily gamed. In another post, I'd like to suggest ways Amazon could improve customer reviews and make them more useful for book discovery...In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what other improvements Amazon could bring to its site that with some 2 million book titles is beginning to look dangerously like a slush pile!

What is your take on Amazon? Do you find that they do a good job of book discovery for you?



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